Crispy Gamer

Spider-Man: Friend or Foe (Xbox 360)

A word of warning for serious comic book fans anxiously awaiting Activision's latest web-slinging interactive adventure: Unless you're a seven-year-old, or a hopelessly bad gamer, swing right past Spider-Man: Friend or Foe.

OK, it can be fun for a while as a don't-tell-your-friends 'guilty pleasure,' but you'll soon realize this colorful brawler was designed with little kids in mind.

Here's the deal with this weekend rental. As the name of the game suggests, Spider-Man: Friend or Foe lets you play not only as Spider-Man but also as one of many villains who will team up with you to fight a greater threat (more on the story in a moment). By beating a villain 'boss character' such as Doc Ock, Rhino, Green Goblin, Sandman or Venom at the end of a level, you can select one of them to play or you can play as a sidekick who will fight alongside Spidey. Doc Ock, of course, has mechanical tentacles that can pick up baddies with ease and smack them down on the ground, while Venom is a fast slasher.

In a single-player game, you'll take command of one character while the game's artificial intelligence (AI) handles the other. Press a button on the Xbox 360 controller to toggle between the characters at anytime -- you'll also need to do this to solve Zelda-like environmental puzzles like stepping on plates to open locked doors. At any time, a friend can pick up a second controller and take command of the second hero or villain.
The main screen you'll visit between levels is a huge helicarrier with one room designated for switching between characters. Apply some RPG-like upgrades by spending coins found throughout the game, then choose to keep playing the linear story mode or to play through past levels with new sidekicks; this adds to the fun and replayability of the game.

Played from a third-person perspective, the game is basically a straightforward button masher, where your character more or less runs from the left side of the screen to the right, bypassing obstacles such as deep chasms or lava pits, and fighting enemies, which usually appear in groups. Either boss characters have an obvious weakness to exploit, or you'll need to survey the environment to figure out how to knock down their health bar to zero. You don't need to master any complicated combo moves or strategically-timed attacks -- simply press the buttons on the controller to punch, kick, jump or use special character-specific moves to knock down the enemies. Spider-Man can also use his webs for navigating some platformer-like elements or to grab nearby baddies or items (such as crates) and pull them towards him.

Environments range from Tokyo rooftops and a creepy Translyvania to the sandy streets of Egypt and high-tech facilities, to larger outdoor locations in Nepal and a tropical island. Reserved for the Versus mode, which lets two gamers duke it out on the same television, indoor and outdoor fighting arenas also round off the level design (some multiplayer areas need to be unlocked by finding special secrets peppered throughout some levels). Too bad there's no Xbox Live online play for teaming up with (or fighting against) friends in another city.

Oh yes, the story. Perhaps as a nod to the 'Spider-Man 3' feature film, a mysterious mastermind is using shards from a fallen meteor to control the minds of villains, essentially putting them under his spell to do his bidding on Earth (along with minions of dumb-as-nails holographic creatures called Phantoms). As Spider-Man, you're tapped by S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury to travel the globe, recover the powerful shards, and awaken the villains, which turns sworn enemies into helpful allies. Dumb? Sure, but the game never takes itself too seriously, and nor should you, Comic Book Guy (read: Worst. Premise. Ever.). Along with villains you'll also be able to play as or with a few Marvel heroes, including Silver Sable, Black Cat, Blade and Iron Fist.

Knowing their audience was primarily kids, the developers at Next Level Games did a good job retaining the comic book flavor for the game's colorful and bright cartoon-like graphics. Even more impressive is the game's animation, which includes acrobatic midair moves. The Xbox 360 version looks better than the Wii and PS2 versions of the game. The voice acting is solid, and the lines of dialogue can be humorous at times, so overall the production values for this game are fairly impressive.

Play well and you'll be able to unlock bonus characters, including the black-suited Spider-Man from the latest Spider-Man movie, as well as special behind-the-scenes materials (such as character art, 3-D renders and movie clips) you can access at any time from the main helicarrier room. As with the ability to play past levels with unlocked sidekicks, this, too, adds some extra fun to the game once you defeat the relatively short six-hour story mode.

The bottom line for Spider-Man: Friend or Foe is this: If you have a younger brother, cousin or nephew who loves Spider-Man, then they shouldn't be disappointed in this accessible but easy action game. But if you're looking for a challenge or something high-definition and open-ended like the last Spider-Man videogame from Activision, you'll grow tired of this dumbed-down comic book brawler.

This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.